All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.
Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry
It may be eccentric to draw attention to a show that has been open some time; all I can say is that the show Making It Up: Photographic Fictions has got remarkably little coverage and deserves plenty.
Making It Up is apparently no more than a pleasant little show in the old photography display space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It brings together images from the museum’s own holdings of every period of photography which – as its title indicates – either aim at something other than the ‘truth’ or use non-‘true’ methods to make their points. So we have a number of beautiful mainstream pictures: a classic Gregory Crewdson, for example, called Temple Street (2006) in which a woman pauses chopping wood in the snowy dusk of a suburban clapboard community. The lighting (electric light just beginning to hold its own against the darkening night), the snow, the slightly menacing stare of the woman who looks at the camera as at an intruder; all these add up to a suggestion of a story. More than that: the very fact of the photograph suggests there was a story worth telling. Crewdson’s trick is to invite us to dive headlong into a picture on the assumption that there must be a story where there may be no more than our own desire to see one.
In Victorian times, both the methods and the purposes could be very different. Artful posing, liberal use of the dressing-up box, and leadingly significant captions were the standard tools of such ‘allegorical’ photographers as Clementina Hawarden or Julia Margaret Cameron. Collage in its various forms is largely present in this exhibition, as one might expect. Beyond the simple fiction of an untrue caption, it makes the plainest kind of non-true photograph. The sumptuous moralizing multiple-negative confection of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is here, in a later (1876) copy by Robert Crawshay, complete with its ponderously virtuous caption. When (in 1986) Andy Weiner collaged his own face onto a number of mildly comedic scenes, he made his own Rake’s Progress from pub to bed. Weiner made no pretence at seamlessness: we are asked to share the joke, not to be taken in by it. To that extent, Weiner had then much in common with such non-photographic artists as Graham Rawle or Glen Baxter. They, too, put themselves alongside their viewers, to laugh at the absurdity of the world together. In photography, it is the very habit of realism which makes anything unrealistic so seductive.
So the great photographic storyteller Duane Michals is represented here by a little 1972 narrative in six parts. Two men cross in an alley. Each looks back at the other as they pass, but they do so at different times and no meeting takes place. We think we are seeing a report; it even looks (in modern terms) as though it could have been made by the regular rhythmic discharge of a security camera. But it’s a fiction, as neatly made as a Borges short story, and just as tantalizing at the end.
So the exhibition goes on, piling non-truth upon untruth in profusion. There is a moderate suburban corner which looks just not quite right. It’s a (2000) paper model by Oliver Boberg of a very non-space kind of space, Notown, Nowhere, photographed to look like a real place. The connections with that other great model-maker, Thomas Demand, are obvious; but the connections with a whole register of pop music or film may be more important. Contrast it to a photograph of a developer’s model of some new flats by Xing Danwen (2005).
The artist has digitally inserted herself on the balcony nearest us, hurrying her nude male visitor away over a wall as a gentleman who might be the husband appears in the dark street below. Here’s a changing room by Bridget Smith (1999) with a couple of squash rackets on the wall, a different kind of neutral space. You have to read the museum caption to discover that it is in fact a set from a pornographic film.
False readings, false suppositions, false extrapolations; sometimes people simply make false photographs, too. A few of those are here, including a famous set of salt prints made by advertising photographer Howard Grey in response to a commission from The Connoisseur magazine in 1981, purportedly to ‘test’ the connoisseurship in early photography. The V&A’s own Mark Haworth-Booth was taken in by those, at least at first. Howard Grey worked closely with the painter Graham Ovenden, and the Hetling fakes which they concocted together are closely allied to the group of Howard Grey images here. Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death certainly wasn’t a fake; a famous picture from the Crimean war (1854-5) showing just how absurd it would have been to try to ride horses through a rain of cannonballs; but like the American Civil War photographers of the same period, Fenton was not above moving the elements of the picture to make his point the stronger. In this case, there are known variants of the picture with the cannonballs and without.
There is wonderful variety in this exhibition, of intention as well as of technique. There’s a photographic Chinese scroll by Wang Qingsong, complete with red signature-stamp in the corner. Jan Wenzel makes lightning rearrangements in a photo-booth and then builds the strips up to a coherent whole.
Vik Muniz’ 1997 action shot of Jackson Pollock (after Hans Namuth) is made in chocolate sauce, and his sheer virtuoso confidence in that most unusual of media is itself staggering. Tom Hunter’s use of heavily romantic imagery taken from art history to portray a marginalized group of Londoners is a complex play of allusion and reference far, far from simple reportorial fact.
Jeff Wall is more like a theatre director, Hannah Starkey perhaps closer to a balladeer. Cindy Sherman’s strange mixture of self-portraiture, social anthropology and sheer good humour is as compelling as ever.
These artists and photographers don’t necessarily have all that much in common. And that’s the point. There has for nearly a hundred years been an insistence that a certain kind of objectivity is the proper stance for the camera. A modernistic look, stripped back, emphasizing by isolation and by composition, and adhering purportedly to a version of the truth. It was a political stance at first, a reaction against the failed mannerisms and mawkish sentimentalism of Pictorialism, and it was intimately tied to a view of the world in which the documentary was properly a tool of the Left. But here’s a splendidly vigorous exhibition which reminds us that it was never the whole picture.
Photography can be and has often been as mannered and as Rococo as any other art form, and that on its own is no reason to reject it. I saw in a recent paper that the great and sometimes austerely modernist composer George Benjamin had just got another rave review for his opera Written on Skin; nothing inherently modernist about opera, you would have thought. There are good, even great Rococo photographs just as there are wholly meretricious modernist ones. Photography certainly can deal in fact and science and truth. But it can also deal admirably in opinion and allegory and metaphor. It’s that side of photography that we saw so much of at the latest edition of Frieze, for it’s back in the ascendant again. Was it this year or last year that I became so enthused by Marcus Coates’ wonderful British Moths? They’re factual, sure enough. But also so much more than that. Come to think of it, there seems to be something in the wind. Just now, we have Hannah Höch showing at the Whitechapel, Mari Mahr and William Burroughs at the Photographers’ Gallery. Bits of their pictures come from bits of the real, no doubt. But not one of them would deign to limit themselves to that. Great photographers don’t, and why should they?
We’ve had the rise and rise of John Stezaker, Maurizio Anzeri, Julie Cockburn… Capital fiddlers, all of them. The most successful photographers in Britain at the moment are probably Gilbert and George, for whom the plain photographic fact has never been more than a jumping off point for the stories they want to tell.
It has always been possible to fiddle about with photographs; more than that, NOT fiddling about has in the past always been a self-conscious and political gesture. Hence the (often spurious) claims to objectivity of such as the f64 tendency. But something has changed. Because millions or billions of unvarnished pictures are made and uploaded every day, their selective and expressive content very much limited to when to fire the camera and in what basic direction, it has become imperative for photographers to reclaim the act of photographing. It comes down again to a distinction I have mentioned here before. Simply to go to a party with an iPhone and take pictures and post them on the internet does not make you a photographer. Nor does using a camera every day to record people parked on yellow lines. We need another word for that, and I’ve been using the expression ‘camera operator’. Photographers are different. They want to use photography to say whatever it is they have to say. It’s not always the truth that photographers tell; it’s their truth. Increasingly, the camera operators are the ones who are content for the picture to say “it was so”.
The photographers have reclaimed the territory that was always more fertile, of reference and argument and persuasion and imagination and narrative, not to mention poetry and allusion. “Maybe it wasn’t so, but this is what I want to say about it.” That’s a wholly proper photographic sentiment, just as it has always been perfectly proper in every other medium. It is because it tracks that sentiment so well and so far back that this unassuming little show in a back gallery at the V&A is so important. Marta Weiss, the curator, may just have pointed out that a tide has changed without our noticing. It may just be that merely to tell the truth in a photograph has finally become as worthy and as ultimately dull as merely to tell it in any other way. Every truth has been told. The truth is no longer enough.
A lot of art students over the years have unearthed Diderot’s message to the artist (not least because it was quoted to telling effect by Walter Friedlander, in a book so famous that even some art students still read it, David to Delacroix): “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep stare, be enraged – only then regale my eyes”. You could reshape it now for the generation who want to be photographers beyond merely posting stuff online as it comes out of some image capturing system: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be enraged – only then tell me the truth”.